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Features, Mamahood, Mamazine Moment, The Journey

Breastfeeding While Black Is a Reclamation & A Radical Act

Daphne Thompson | September 15, 2020

In celebration of Black Breastfeeding Week this year, Mama Glow assembled a powerful panel of women for our Mama Glow Webinar series, Black Breastfeeding Week: A Reclamation, A Radical Act. The webinar was a lively, informative and deeply healing conversation about the unique barriers that face BIPOC communities when it comes to birth and breastfeeding. In the spirit of this year’s Black Breastfeeding Week Theme, “Revive. Restore. Reclaim,” the virtual event united a global community of over 350 attendees to rise together.

The panel, who outlined the challenges and celebrated the triumphs of BIPOC families, included co-founder of Black Breastfeeding week and founder of IRTH app Kimberly Seals-Allers, doula, perinatal health coordination, and co-founder of Woven Bodies Morgane Richardson, MPH, IBLCLC, RLC, and co-host of Dem Black Mamas NeKisha Killings, and Senior VP of MomsRising.org Monifa Bandele. The discussion was facilitated by Mama Glow doula Djali Brown-Cepeda, and presented in partnership with Elvie, the brand behind the world’s first silent and wearable breast pump.

Read on for some of the biggest takeaways and moments shared during the Mama Glow webinar, to educate, support, and lift Black breast and chest feeding parents.

Lack of Access of Resources Specific to BIPOC Families Can Impact Breastfeeding Success

When Morgane was pregnant, she says she knew she wanted to feed her baby the way her mom had fed her, breastfeeding until Morgane’s father passed away and her mother became a single parent when she was 2 years old.  Even though she’s a birth worker, Morgane said she still felt a lot of isolation after she and her wife had their daughter, especially as a queer black person. She attributed some of that isolation to not having materials and resources that reflected her diverse family.

When she was pregnant with her first child, NeKisha said that she faced every possible problem when it came to breastfeeding. After her husband’s aunt encouraged her to get help, the lactation support she was able to find felt purely technical, devoid of the warmth and love she was needing in that postpartum period from a lactation consultant who really knew and saw what she was experiencing on a personal level. She said that she walked away from that first breastfeeding experience wanting to be a nurturing resource to families that look like hers and stepped into her role as a Black lactation consultant with that intention.

There exists a huge gap between the number of certified Black and brown lactation consultants vs. their white counterparts. Depending upon where you live in the world, there may not be a single perfect who looks like you or comes from a background like yours to be able to support you on your lactation journey.

Within the birth space, there also continues to be a disparity between how BIPOC and white women are educated about postpartum care and breastfeeding, for example, how taking contraceptives right after could impact milk supply. Djali remarks that her mother was put on the hormonal birth control shot right after she had her, without being fully informed about how it would impact her postpartum body.

NeKisha advised that for white birth workers and lactation consultants looking to support BIPOC families in their work, they can show true allyship by prioritizing the following:

  • listen to them
  • believe them
  • advocate for them
  • amplify their voices

It is so necessary, however, that you do your own work first. Show up on an individual level before you show up for the community. Furthermore, if you can’t show up in a meaningful way yet, refrain from showing until you can, so that you don’t cause harm to the work already being done.

The US Workforce Creates Additional Obstacles for Feeding Parents

Monifa moved the webinar attendees with her assertion that “When we strip Black women of their motherhood, we strip Black children of their childhood.” She recalled that her experience feeding both of her daughters should her that the structures of the workforce don’t allow parents to breastfeed in the way that they want. Kimberly added that she was told “breastfeeding is for poor people.”

The current COVID-19 pandemic has stripped naked the fact that systems in this country are not in place to adequately care for and support new families. An absence of substantial paid parental leave in the US makes it impossible for many parents to bond with their children; the average fully paid parental leave in this country is only 4.1 weeks.

Furthermore, a lack of safe and supportive resources and spaces for body feeding parents makes it challenging for parents to continue pumping once they have returned to the workforce. #IPumpedHere was created as a hashtag to expose the obstacles in place and the lengths feeding parents are having to go to find places to nurse or pump where none have been especially dedicated to them.

Djali pointed out that “Black women have always been in the ‘workforce,'” making Black breastfeeding a form of resistance. The panelist remind us that chattel slavery prevented slave women from nourishing and protecting their own children, and that history played a dark role in shaping the stereotypes and narratives that exist today. Black mothers have been stereotyped as capable and desirable for taking care of others’ children, but incapable of taking care of their own, and that bias in turn contributes to an absence of resources available for working parents who are actually in need of the care and support non-marginalized families are more readily receiving.

Space Needs to Be Made for Perinatal LGBTQ+ Families

When asked about the erasure of LGBTQ+ families from perinatal spaces, Morgane remarked that she doesn’t believe LGBTQ folks have been “erased” from the perinatal space, because the space has not yet been created for them yet. A big part of creating space that is truly inclusive and embracing of all families is shifting the language around birth and pregnancy and body feeding. Morgane remarked that when she and her wife were expecting and looking for parent groups, all the groups they found were for “Mom and Dad.” None of the faces in the support resources they had access to during pregnancy were representative of the family they were creating.

Nevertheless, as a birth worker and advocate for LGBTQ+ families, Morgane said “I don’t see problems, I see room from growth.” She acknowledged a big question she’s been confronted with when shaping what that growth could look like:  if we remove the word “woman” from the birth experience, are we taking away from the momentum of the birth movement? Morgane has concluded that as we continue lifting women up, we don’t have to keep other people down. Instead, as we continue to work towards true birth justice, may we open the doors and our minds to the reality that not all people who birth or adopt or make families are women/female.

While a lot of focus is on language right now (opting for more inclusive phrases like “birthing parent” or “body feeding” rather than the assumptive “mother” or “breastfeeding”), we have to go beyond that and look at what allyship really means when supporting communities of people who don’t look like you. Part of that is knowing when you’re not the right person to offer support, and deferring to someone else who can. As we continue to create meaningful perinatal space for the LGBTQ+  community, that work includes empowering queer and trans people to put their words and experiences out there in support of other queer and trans parents, as well as supporting their education as they go through the trainings necessary to take the reins in the birth space and lead the work toward providing equitable care and resources for LGBTQ+ families.

Community Exists for BIPOC Families to Find Support & Heal Trauma

Kimberly reminded us that Black Breastfeeding Week is about sharing positive stories and shifting narrative for Black women, not just sharing the horrifying statistics and stories of traumatic experiences. So, how do you help BIPOC parents overcome trauma and resistance to support successful infant feeding? The panelists were in agreement that support circles are out there, and that you can create your own community if you aren’t getting what you need at home or from family. If you feel isolated and alone, Kimberly suggested going to social media and looking at all of the posts curated under hashtags like #blackbreastfeeding, #blackdoulas, #blackmothers, etc., to see the beautiful images and stories of people who look like and are experiencing like you.

Coming up with a feeding plan and finding a support network that will help you through breastfeeding challenges is necessary, before you go into labor. The panelists urged expectant parents that they need to be as prepared for how you will feed as you are for how you will birth – it’s not something to be figured out at the hospital.  They advised that you should also anticipate the resistance or lack of support that you might receive after the birth, preparing for the actual experience of care, not the glorified experience that may not turn out to be the reality. Know who the people you can call when shit hits the fans and breastfeeding gets tough once you’re back home are, to feel certain about what that support system will look like like before you are actively in that experience.

Remember, too, that birth justice workers have been and are continuing to do the work that lays foundation to protect Black lives, even though that work is often not what’s trending. Postpartum doula care

To conclude the webinar, Djali asked each panelist to share their restorative words of support for the BIPOC body feeding community. Here’s what they had to say:

  • “You are enough.” – Kimberly Seals-Allers
  • “Breathing is resistance. Do it with intentionality.” – Monifa Bandele
  • “Find your people. You are not alone. Across the world, there are folks who would love to stand with you.” – NeKisha Killings
  • “Lean into your community. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness.” – Morgane Richardson

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